SEOUL — A fringe church in South Korea with a messianic leader has been shut down after a surge of coronavirus infections.

More than half of South Korea’s covid-19 cases have been traced to a regional branch of the secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus, formally known as the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.

But authorities were having difficulty locating members, many of whom are probably in hiding, a former member said.

Shincheonji members believe leader Lee Man-hee is the second coming of Jesus. In an internal message, Lee called the spread of the virus “a devil’s deed.”

The South Korean government on Sunday announced 169 new coronavirus cases and two more deaths, bringing the totals to 602 cases and six deaths. Authorities raised the national threat level to “red alert,” the first time they’ve used the highest setting since the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the country’s coronavirus crisis has entered a “totally different phase since the mass infection at Shincheonji.” Hundreds of thousands signed a petition calling for the church to be dissolved.

Moon called the temporary shutdown of Shincheonji churches across the country “a fair and inevitable step” to protect the community. He said there was “no intention to limit religious freedom.”

Shincheonji spokesman Kim Si-mon said in a live stream late Sunday that its 1,100 churches and annex buildings nationwide have been closed and its 245,000 churchgoers have been instructed to refrain from external activities.

Kim said Shincheonji “is thoroughly tackling the coronavirus as we totally understand the South Korean public’s worries.” The church said it canceled plans for a news conference after all the venues it reached out to refused to host the event, citing concerns over the virus.

He criticized “slanderous media reports” accusing Shincheonji of covering up an internal crisis from the virus.

The church denied reports that members were told to lie about recent services. The church said it was not an official order from the leadership but a “personal message” from one member.

Health authorities have identified a 61-year-old woman who attended a Shincheonji branch in the southern city of Daegu as patient zero for scores of cases within the church. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the woman initially refused doctors’ requests that she be tested for the virus on the grounds that she had not traveled abroad recently.

The church denied media reports that the woman assaulted nurses and created a commotion with fellow church members at the hospital.

Authorities have identified a pair of Sunday services she attended with 1,000 others this month as a hotbed for the coronavirus.

The number of cases traced to the Daegu church have snowballed to 329 in a week, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The director of the agency said Shincheonji services that gather worshipers in crowded spaces possibly aggravated transmissions there.

Shin Hyun-wook, a former Shincheonji member who now campaigns against religious cults, said church members are supposed to kneel on the floor in tight rows at temple halls. Worshipers are not allowed to wear masks during services, Shin said.

Local authorities said they had reached out to Shincheonji members in Daegu for inspection, but 670 were unresponsive as of Sunday. Police have mobilized some 600 officers to track down members.

Shin said hundreds of Shincheonji members are probably in hiding: “For them, the fear of being outed as a Shincheonji follower is bigger than the fear of getting ill from the virus.” Because of the “cult stigma” attached to the church, Shin said, some members hide their affiliation even from their families.

Kim, the Shincheonji spokesman, said a membership list the Daegu church submitted to health authorities was leaked and exposed members to personal attacks. Kim said those who were outed by the list have faced discrimination, insults and firing from their jobs.

An online petition to Moon’s office asking for the “forceful dissolution of Shincheonji,” has drawn nearly 380,000 supporters.

Woo Seoc-kyun, a representative of the Association of Physicians for Humanism, said “hatred against Shincheonji” does not help but hinders efforts to contain the virus. “The labeling effect will push them even deeper into hiding,” Woo was quoted as saying by the online news outlet Pressian.

In his internal message, published by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, church leader Lee called the mass infection “the devil’s deed to curb the rapid growth of Shincheonji.”

“Just like Job had his faith tested,” he said, “it is to destroy our growth.”

A church spokeswoman did not respond to a Washington Post request for comment.

Lee, who founded the movement in 1984, claims he will save his followers from an impending apocalypse. His followers believe he is a prophet who can decode hidden meanings in the Bible and live eternally.